Sunday Slugfest - newuniversal #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Tobey Cook, Kelvin Green, Jason Sacks, Steven G. Saunders, Thom Young
SPOILER WARNING: The following reviews discuss plot developments of the issue.

Tobey Cook

I loved the New Universe when it was first introduced, and I actually have an almost-complete run of Star Brand (minus the John Byrne issues, which went so far away from the original concept they’re not worth getting into) that I still dig into once in awhile. What I liked about that series, and the New Universe books in general, was that they were a realistic take on the concept of superheroes: people suddenly finding they have superpowers and not donning a costume but rather, trying to figure out how this happened and what their place in the world is. Now the New Universe has returned once again in newuniversal, with Warren Ellis at the helm. So, for those of you who are fans of Heroes, you’re probably going to find a lot of similar parallels in the back to basics approach that Ellis applies here.

What grabbed me most about this book though is Salvador Larocca’s art. He’s grown quite a bit over the years, and he definitely shows he can take the ball and run with it. There’s a great splash page following the White Event (the mysterious white flash in the sky that causes people to suddenly develop powers) showing a field with the Star Brand symbol burned into the grass like one of those crop circles, that just grabbed my attention right away. It was so simple but definitely illustrated there’s more to these characters than what came before.

Ellis twists things a little bit here in his own way to make them unique. I just really enjoyed all the little details he puts into the story, like a conversation between two archaeologists about the history of Latvia or the discussion between Ken Connell and his girlfriend about the mysteries of the universe. Larocca’s art portrays these moments beautifully and makes them really stand out for me.

This is definitely a book I can recommend. It’s just a fun read, and anybody who’s familiar with the New Universe will grab onto this book immediately. The characters are similar enough, but Ellis, in his own little way, makes them his own. That in itself is something to look forward to.

Kelvin Green

So does this follow on from Avengers, Thunderbolts, etc.? Do we call it the New New Universe? Or does the lower case lettering mean we’re witnessing the birth of the Ultimate New Universe? Sadly, these questions interest me more than the comic itself.

I have to confess to being not at all fond of the hybrid art style on show here. The various elements don’t mesh well, with the paints (or what looks like paint, anyway) looking flat alongside the scratchy linework, the photo-referencing looking just as stiff and lifeless as 95% of the style seems to (has anyone since Frank Hampson pulled it off? Answers to the forums, please!), and the CGI simply jarring with everything else. It’s presumably supposed to make the comic stand out from anything else Marvel is publishing, to give the New New Universe a unique visual identity, but it looks choppy and amateurish. That said, the art team does produce some cracking imagery, effectively capturing the strange and unnerving cosmic scale of the events; but they’re brief bits of visual flair in an underwhelming job.

Unusually for Ellis, the writing lacks any sort of distinctive bite. It’s a solid job, efficiently introducing the world and some of our cast, but it’s a bit too economical, as if Ellis has merely done the bare minimum to convey the necessary information, bringing little of his own personality to the writing; aside from a line or two (“This is a paradigm shift. Everything you know has changed. Please remain calm.”), this could have been written by anyone. Even the Ultimate Galactus trilogy had more energy in it, and it was quite clear that Ellis didn’t really want to be involved in that. Perhaps things will improve in later issues, but it’s more of a problem of style than content, and that’s harder to fix.

I didn’t hate this comic; it would be more accurate to say that the creative team haven’t done enough in this first issue to make me like it. This really isn’t a bad effort, but there’s just nothing here to grab the attention. Nostalgia alone won’t do it.

Jason Sacks:

“This is a paradigm shift. Everything you know has changed. Please remain calm.” That seems to be the key phrase in Warren Ellis’ new series newuniversal, which revisits and revises the notorious New Universe line of the 1980s. Everything is the same as it was in the ‘80s, but at the same time everything has changed.

It’s safe to say that very few people will be offended by these changes; first, because Ellis is respectful of the characters and doesn’t change them in radical ways, and secondly, because very few people really love the New Universe titles. There’s a small cult of interest around Jim Shooter’s Star Brand stories, but very few people still care about Nightmask, Justice or any of the other characters in the line, and a few were godforsaken losers from the get-go (Kickers, Inc., anyone?).

Maybe the most interesting hook about the New Universe is the White Event. The White Event is the moment when the world changes in an instant, when an ordinary planet suddenly contains people that have superpowers. In the original New U, the White Event happened offstage, before the first issue. Events were already in motion before the first issues of the NewU titles appeared. In new universal, the White Event takes place in the middle of this issue and affects each character differently. It’s an interesting choice by Ellis. On one hand, it gives the first issue a real center to it, a unifying event that is so extraordinary and interesting that it binds together several disparate threads. On the other hand, it keeps the story from hitting the ground running in the same way it might if the White Event had happened before the first issue.

But enough about the comparison stuff. How does this comic read as its own freestanding book? I think it’s very entertaining. newuniversal has the feel of an epic, with events happening to characters all around the world at around the same time. How does an archaeological dig in Latvia relate to a critically injured police officer in New York City? How does a couple in Oklahoma relate to the story of a woman in San Francisco who seems to walk in dreams? And what is the relationship between the White Event and the aliens who seem to show up to the dreamwalking woman? There are a lot of disparate threads created by Ellis here, and it should be fun to see how they all come together.

Salvador Larroca delivers a terrific job with the artwork. His style here is lush and interesting. The scenes where the paranormal woman from San Francisco journeys into dream space is absolutely gorgeous and absurdly detailed, and the spaceship he draws is one of the most complicated-looking ships that comics have seen. He’s also good at drawing people: the scene with the couple in Oklahoma, where the relationship is everything, is very well depicted. Larroca is equally adept at drawing ordinary people and the extraordinary events that happen to them.

Of course, this issue is a lot of setup and very little payoff at this point. Obviously, that’s to be expected with a first issue like this one. Ellis clearly has a big story to tell, with lots of characters in motion. It should be interesting to see where it all goes.

Steven G. Saunders:

“This is a paradigm shift. Everything you know has changed. Please remain calm.”

Warren Ellis writes a lot of material. A lot. Not all of it is going to be perfect, and I don’t expect it to be. However, Warren Ellis certainly gives perfection a run for its money with this re-boot of the New Universe, a Universe that was created twenty years ago and ultimately failed commercially.

This is as good as introductory issues to new and complex worlds can get, as Ellis gives us a taste of what’s to come with new universal. It’s lush and captivating, plotted and paced in a superb manner, and has some awesome art to back it all up. Seriously, reading this felt like a dream. That could be the sleep-deprivation, but I will stand by that comment as best I can. Ellis has a way here that really immerses the reader into this soon-to-be rich story with its interesting characters. Everything is tied together by a report-like narrative, and everything changes with “The White Event.” It’s of interesting to note that some things are quite different about this Universe that we take for granted in others, such as Paul McCartney being the dead Beatle and not John Lennon (who we know, via the TV, is celebrating his 66th birthday).

Some of the characters I recognise from the old New Universe comics. They’re supposed to be completely re-imagined, I hear, and that’s okay. Justice, Star Brand, Spitfire and Nightmask all seem to be covered here (as well as others, maybe; it’s been a long time since I read the “NU” comics). It’s too early to say just what twists are being placed upon these older concepts, but it looks like they’ve been infused with some fresh ideas right out of Ellis’ splendid imagination. For right now, I have faith in what he’ll be able to deliver.

As I implied earlier, the art of this inaugural issue is exceptional! There’s some “big art” here: big panels, big pictures describing big scenes (in scope if not physically). The illustrations are so good and situated so well, one can almost read this book with no words and get a very good idea of what’s going on. It still has a “drawn” quality to it, as opposed to being photo-realistic or something, but that doesn’t matter. Salvador Larroca’s style is just wonderful, having an old-school allure joined with new school technique. Jason Keith’s colours aren’t just delicious frosting, but essential to the tale being told. It all comes together so nicely-- the art, panel layout, colouring. There’s also some excellent use of shadowing.

All in all, a truly wonderful kick-off for a new series, one of which I think is some of Ellis’ best work. But this is just one issue. The next issue will hopefully be as good, if not better. There’s not too much excitement going on here in issue #1, but much is promised as everything is set-up, so we’ll see. Based on its own merits, though, new universal #1 is very much a delight, I feel. Looks like I have another title for the pull list!

Thom Young:

As you can no doubt tell by the I’ve given it, I was extremely disappointed with newuniversal #1. The story is not at all what I was expecting. I was hoping this issue was finally going to do the original New Universe concept correctly—twenty years after Jim Shooter, Archie Goodwin, and Mark Gruenwald developed it.

The original concept (as Shooter often described it) was that the New Universe was “the world outside your window” devoid of gods, aliens, hidden races, magic, or super technology. Given that “gods, aliens, hidden races, magic, and super technology” are the conventions on which most superhero comics have been based since Superman first appeared in 1938, it sure seemed as if Shooter and company weren’t going to have much going for them in their “New Universe.”

Obviously, it turned out that they didn’t have much going for them as the line folded after three years of mediocre books. However, despite the claims of many fans at the time, I don’t believe the failure had anything to do with the restrictions that Shooter imposed on the line. Instead, I believe the failure was the result of the poor execution of Shooter’s concept—and Shooter himself was one of the writers.

To understand why Shooter wanted to create a superhero universe that was restricted to depicting “the world outside your window,” it’s necessary to understand the historical development of superheroes operating in a world of greater verisimilitude.

While there are probably some rare examples from the Golden Age, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko really got “superhero verisimilitude” started with their work at Marvel in the early 1960s—specifically, with The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man. In Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby created a “family” in which the members often argued the way families do in “real life.” In particular, Ben and Johnny often acted like bickering siblings who were beyond the control of their mothering “big sister” and their absent-minded surrogate father.

In Spider-Man, Lee and Ditko created a character who was picked on at high school, was shy around girls, and had trouble helping his aunt May pay the bills each month. Peter Parker was a Walter Mitty whose fantasies, however, were “real.” In turn, Spider-Man provided the fantasies for all the Walter Mittys who read his adventures each month in the early to mid 1960s.

Nearly ten years later, in the early 70s, Kirby attempted to take this world of greater verisimilitude in another direction. For the first 36 years of its history, DC had avoided verisimilitude in their comics. However, in an effort to compete with Marvel, DC was experimenting in the early 70s. Denny O ’Neil and Neal Adams were telling “relevant” stories in Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and Kirby was attempting to show in his “Fourth World” books how the existence of super beings would affect the lives of everyday people.

Kirby made this attempt with limited success in two issues that specifically attempted this approach—Forever People #1 (in which the world’s heavyweight boxing champ tells Clark Kent that his title is meaningless in a world in which Superman exists) and New Gods #8 (“The Death Wish Of Terrible Turpin!” in which the devastation to property and personal lives caused by a battle between super beings is presented for the first time in a comic book).

Then nearly ten years later again, Alan Moore created the first fully developed hyper-verisimilitude approach to the existence of super beings in the world. First, by depicting an altered socio-political landscape of England with his Marvelman (a.k.a. Miracleman), and then expanding on the concept with The Watchmen—in which he created a world set in 1985 that was drastically different from the one in which we live due to the existence of Dr. Manhattan for the past 20 years.

By the mid 1980s, it certainly seemed that superhero comics were heading down the path of “greater verisimilitude.” Shooter’s ambition was to capitalize on this movement by creating an entire line of comics that would explore the social, political, and psychological ramifications springing from the sudden existence of super beings in the world outside our window.

It was a good idea, but it failed because of poor execution by creators who didn’t have a firm grasp on how the social, political, and psychological conditions in the real world could be affected by the presence of super beings.

After Watchmen, there were a number of superhero comics in the mid to late 80s that attempted to emulate Moore’s creation of a world of greater verisimilitude. Fortunately, I forgot most of those terrible attempts long ago.

However, almost ten years later (again) another success finally came along with Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels —which presented the common man’s perspective of the super beings in the Marvel universe. Busiek then followed it up with Astro City—another series that often does a good job of examining how the presence of super beings would affect the lives of everyday citizens.

I love these types of stories—when they ’re done well. Twenty years ago, I thought superhero comics set in a world of greater verisimilitude would become the norm rather than the exception. Yet, the “verisimilitude movement” has failed to develop as I (and Shooter) had envisioned—with Warren Ellis’s original run on The Authority being the only recent example of exceptional quality.

Marvels, Astro City, and The Authority are the types of post-Marvelman and post-Watchmen stories that I’m sure Shooter had in mind for the New Universe line. So, now along comes Warren Ellis on newuniversal, and I’m thinking that we’re finally going to see the impact that these characters would have in “the real world.”

However, before the White Event and the super beings even appear in the story, Ellis goes out of his way to make sure we understand that this is not the world outside our window. Here are some details in the world of newuniversal as of March 2, 2006:
The “Chinese space plane, ‘Great Enterprise,’” is making its 170th journey to Space Station Harmony. In contrast, in the world outside our window, NASA’s five space shuttles have combined for only 116 missions in 30 years, and the agency’s Space Station Freedom (announced by Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union Address) was never built—though remnants of the project were developed into the International Space Station that has only existed since 2000.

The Soviet Union is still in existence.

Rather than a European Union, the world has the African Union.

The Chinese have multiple bases on the moon.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are still standing in Manhattan.

Ex-Beatle, John Lennon is still alive (and was born on March 2, 1940), but Paul McCartney was murdered on John Lennon’s birthday on March 2, 1987. In contrast, the John Lennon from the world outside our window was born on October 9, 1940 and was murdered on December 8, 1980 (which is not our Paul McCartney’s birthday).

There have not been any fireworks in the world since the 1950s. However, since “Fireworks” was spelled with an uppercase “F” in the story (possibly indicating a proper name), perhaps something else was meant.

The Indus Valley in Pakistan is spelled with a lowercase “i” (indus Valley)—indicating . . . I don’t know what.

Additionally, in what is surely the strangest aspect of this world that Ellis has created, the fictional town of Optima Down, Oklahoma (with a population of only 21,000 and is apparently not a suburb of Oklahoma City or Tulsa) has a really cool bar that looks like something out of Chicago or New York in the 1940s.

What’s more, this cool-looking bar in Optima Down serves Tsingtao beer and rice wine. I mean, come on, Ellis, give us some verisimilitude at least. Tsingtao beer and rice wine in rural Oklahoma? Obviously, the Chinese power in this new universe goes beyond their influence in space planes, space stations, and moon bases.

Beyond the breaking of the world-outside-your-window scenario, Ellis also breaks Shooter’s original New Universe restrictions as he introduces “aliens, lost races, and super technology” into this world. I have no reason to doubt that “gods and magic” will be appearing in subsequent issues.

Okay, so even before the White Event takes place, this new universe isn’t “the world outside my window”—not even close. I guess Ellis’s point is that he’s not trying to do a correct implementation of Shooter’s New Universe. He’s just taking the White Event and the basic characters and then recasting them in a world that is already drastically different from ours in many ways. He’s also showing us that he isn’t limiting the possibilities of this universe with the restrictions that Shooter dictated.

Okay, so that’s why I was disappointed when I read this first issue. It’s not what I expected or wanted. Ellis isn’t presenting a “hyper-verisimilitude” story that is going to show the potential social, political, and psychological ramifications that would take place in the world outside my window if super beings suddenly existed. Perhaps he thought that scenario had already been handled well enough with Marvels, Astro City, and his own Authority.

Instead, he decided to present a world of alien races with super technology that have links to a lost Bronze Age civilization in Latvia—which sort of reminds me of Kirby’s original concept for The Eternals. However, despite my disappointment, I must admit that newuniversal #1 is a well-written and well-illustrated comic book that kept my attention even though Ellis used almost all of the clichéd conventions that we’ve come to expect in superhero comics.

The fact is, as long as they’re done well, I don’t mind the use of tired, old superhero conventions—and this first issue was certainly top notch. What more can I say?

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